Sunday, December 30, 2007


Tonight I turned my face to the wind and the rain. And I thought of ravens and ships and storms and the face of God. It is times like this, near the turning point between the years, when the fabric of reality has worn thin and has not been resurfaced, that one feels the immanence of the numinous.

Perhaps one of the songs that captures this odd sense of loss and future loss is Billy Joel's The Downeaster 'Alexa'. As Ambrosius said to Brian Duffy in The Drawing of the Dark, "Much has been lost, and there is yet much to lose." I've appended the lyrics to Alexa at the bottom of this post.

It's all about the Sea and an honest living, you see. The Sea, in my context, is my professional environment. Metaphorically, I was brought up in four generations of those who laboured at sea to make a living for themselves and others. As BJ puts it, "I was a bayman like my father was before..." and his father before him, and even before that, but it's a case of "...can't make a living as a bayman anymore..." Simply put, you can engineer it so that there are more people working in the industry, but if the industry is bust, it's bust. Kaput.

I spent a couple of hectic months writing about this sea. At the end of it, I was happy to have written something. But the sense of fin de siècle creeps up on you. It is like the end of the 'long 19th century', that curious period from about 1776 to 1918, in which British power oscillated from world-spanning and all-conquering to fragile and on the verge of extinction without knowing it. The French called it la Belle Epoque – but they would, of course.

I feel that the Sea, as my ancestors – my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents – knew it and loved it, is gone. Its waters recede, just as the Sea of Faith does in Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. Soon, the age of post-postmodernism, of a deliberate attempt to destroy the things of faith, will launch its eagle-taloned bid to strike and seize the heart of the world. That is what struck me tonight as I dreamt thoughts of ravens harrowing an eagle in the purple skies of the night, as the wind flung the rain like spears against the tall towers of my life.

Yes, "There ain't no future for a man who works the sea / But there ain't no island left for islanders like me..."


The Downeaster 'Alexa' by Billy Joel

Well I'm on the Downeaster "Alexa"
And I'm cruising through Block Island Sound
I have chartered a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardner's Bay
Like all the locals here I've had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster "Alexa"
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can't fall asleep

I've got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there's fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren't what they used to be
But I've got people back on land who count on me

So if you see my Downeaster "Alexa"
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel

Now I drive my Downeaster "Alexa"
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they told me I can't sell no stripers
And there's no luck in swordfishing here

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for islanders like me...

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